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Sterling's Attorney Says New Lawsuit Has No Weight; Obama Talks About Bergdahl Deal; Ex-Comrades Label Bergdahl A Deserter; Obama Defends Bergdahl Swap; Interview with Rep. Peter King

Aired June 3, 2014 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, President Obama is in Warsaw, Poland for a four-day trip through Poland. While there, he defended his decision to swap five Gitmo detainees for a captive American soldier.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We don't leave our men or women in uniform behind.


BLITZER: This hour, we'll hear from the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, and Republican Congressman Peter King. Also right now, a mysterious noise recorded after Flight 370 went missing could become a key clue to finding the missing plane. We'll assess.

And right now, Republican Senators John McCain, Tom Coburn, among others, are getting ready to pitch their plan to try to fix the Department of Veteran Affairs.

Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. We start today with the president defending his decision on Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. President Obama has come under fire for the deal where the U.S. traded five detainees at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba to secure the release of Sergeant Bergdahl. Here is how the president described it while in Poland this morning.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I wouldn't be doing it if I thought that it was contrary to American national security. And we have confidence that we will be in a position to go after them if, in fact, they are engaging in activities that threaten our defenses. But this is what happens at the end of wars. That was true for George Washington. That was true for Abraham Lincoln. That was true for FDR. That's been true of every combat situation that, at some point, you make sure that you try to get your folks back. And that's the right thing to do.


BLITZER: There's been a chorus of criticism, however, much of it from fellow soldiers who called Bergdahl a deserter. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEW VIERKANT, PLATOON MONITOR, U.S. ARMY: The facts on the ground were he left his weapon and his equipment, took minimal supplies and walked off to either join the Taliban or do something else. Only he can answer that question.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: What was the feeling on the ground about what had happened to him?

VIERKANT: Well, the general feeling was that he deserted us and walked off and left us.


BLITZER: Also on CNN this morning, Arizona Senator John McCain said the reason for Bergdahl's disappearance doesn't matter but the price paid for his release does.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: There's overwhelming evidence and testimony coming forward that Sergeant Bergdahl left of his own free will and that will be the subject of investigation. That does not mean he shouldn't have been brought home. The problem that I have, and many others have, is what we paid for that release, and that is releasing five of the most hardened, anti-American killers.


BLITZER: Covering all angles of the story, we have White House Correspondent Michelle Kosinski. She's travelling with the president in (INAUDIBLE.) And our Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr. She's over at the Pentagon.

Michelle, I'll start with you. Did the president have a response for his critics who say he paid too high a price for the freedom for Bergdahl?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, to some extent, yes, he called it a sacred rule that we don't leave our men and women in uniform behind. He said that the administration had been consulting with Congress on exactly this deal for some time, that they had the opportunity to secure Bergdahl's release. They were concerned about his health. And they seized that opportunity. And this was a short press conference. There was only one question on the subject. Not a lot of time to get into details. And the president pretty much echoed what we've been hearing from his administration for days now. On the subject of the real possibility that Bergdahl was a deserter, though, he did say this.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Regardless of the circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he's held in captivity, period. Full stop. We don't condition that. And that's what every mom and dad who sees a son or daughter sent over into war theater should expect from not just their commander in chief but from the United States of America.


KOSINSKI: But what we haven't been hearing details on is what happened after this year that the administration has described as monitoring and travel bans for these. I thought it was interesting when the president did say, is there a possibility that these five will return to Jihad after this period of time is over? He said, absolutely, but he would not have done this deal if it was contrary to American security.

I think what we heard in more detail was from the national security team and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They got into detail about the contested legality of this move without the 30-day sort of heads up that they could have given to Congress. And the national security team said, well, this was within the legal rules, that they have this short window of time to wait and to notify Congress first, could have jeopardized Bergdahl's health and safety. They felt that this move was within the interest of national security.

And also on whether Bergdahl could face punishment, the president wouldn't answer that question today. He said that that's not something being asked right now, although the chairman of the Joint Chiefs said that the Army would not shy away from that, if necessary -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Michelle Kosinski travelling with the president in Poland. Thank you.

Fellow soldiers who say he walked off his post, put others in danger. Barbara Starr is over at the Pentagon. Barbara, you've heard all the allegations that U.S. troops may have died as a result of his supposedly leaving, voluntarily leaving that base. What are you hearing?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, here at the Pentagon, they are very adamant that they're going to take this step by step, that the first priority is Bergdahl's health and welfare, his physical and mental state. So, he is in Landstuhl, in Germany. Will be there for some period of time until he is able to travel back to the states.

At some point, the next step, once he is in better shape, they will decide when to begin more formally asking him exactly what happened. Why did he leave? How did he come not to be on the base? What was going on? What was his reasoning? What happened to him? This is not going to happen in exactly perfect chronological order. They're going to find out from him what happened to him in the -- if they talk to him in this medical phase.

At some point, the more formal questioning phase will begin. At some point, the Army has to decide how it wants to legally proceed. Does it have a fact-finding investigation? Does it immediately begin some kind of legal proceeding? Does it, in fact, make this -- the Army make the decision to simply dismiss Bergdahl from the military? They can go in any one of a number of directions. And that's what we're all looking for, what will be the next steps the Army will take -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. Thanks very much for that.

Certainly, one of the key questions out there facing the president is the matter of the legality of his decision, whether he should have given Congress 30-days' notice before releasing those five detainees from Guantanamo Bay.

Joining us now is the George Washington University law professor, Jonathan Turley. You're pretty firm, you believe the president broke the law?

JONATHAN TURLEY, LAW PROFESSOR, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: Absolutely. The law says, clearly, that he has to notify Congress and give 30 days. And what the president is, essentially, arguing is, I'm interpreting that law to mean exactly opposite of what it says, that I have the right not to do that. It's important to note, Wolf, that they're not -- that provision's not limiting his power to transfer individuals. It's a simple notification provision that you find in a great variety of different laws.

BLITZER: Because they argue -- in this legal opinion that they put out, the NSE spokesperson, Kaitlyn Haden, argues that the constitution of the United States assigns to the president, quote, "protecting the lives of Americans abroad and protecting U.S. soldiers." He apparently was in danger. His health was deteriorating. They had to move quickly otherwise his life could have been in danger. As a result, they didn't wait 30 days with that notification.

TURLEY: I think the answer to Congress is going to be, look, this was a process of years that apparently this negotiation was going on. You clearly could have notified us earlier than you did.

BLITZER: They say they did notify back in 2011. There was an extensive discussion with Democrats and Republicans in Congress when there was some consideration of a swap, these five at Guantanamo Bay, in exchange for Bergdahl. At the time, there was widespread opposition there. But they say they should not have been surprised because there, earlier, had been consultations.

TURLEY: Well, first of all, I don't think they're arguing those earlier consultations complied with the law. They're arguing that they really interpret this law as saying, you never intended to limit us in this way. When I look at that law, I don't see that leeway given to the president.

BLITZER: Even in the signing statement that he attached -- once he signed that defense authorization bill into law, he did include these words, the executive branch must have the flexibility, among other things, to act swiftly in conducting negotiations with foreign countries regarding the circumstances of detainee transfers. That's what he said he wrote in that signing statement at the time he signed that law. That's the argument he's made. President Bush did similar kinds of thing, when he was president of the United States, signing statements that would disqualify various provisions of the law.

TURLEY: As you know, Wolf, many of us have objected to signing statements as something that is an --

BLITZER: The Supreme Court hasn't ruled on --

TURLEY: They haven't. But this --

BLITZER: So, it's a legal question now. Do -- when the president has the signing statement, is he violating the law or not? I assume, at some point, that might go up to the Supreme Court.

TURLEY: Well, it's not a violation of law to put in a signing statement because a signing statement is meaningless. It is, basically, a president saying, this is how I interpret the law. It's his actions that violate the law. And this president promised, in fact ran on a promise not to use signing statements to negate federal law. The answer is not to sign the law, not to sign the law and say, by the way, I intend to violate this when I have to. The law here is a simple notification law. And I think that the backlash you've seen afterwards explains why notification is not given. This is a very controversial deal. And they did not want to bring Congress into the loop.

BLITZER: Jonathan Turley, thanks very much for coming in.

TURLEY: Thank you.

BLITZER: The president defended the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap today. Up next, I'll get reaction from a member of the House Homeland Security and Intelligence Committee, Pete King, standing by live.


BLITZER: As Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl recuperates in Germany, many Republicans, some Democratic voices, in Congress are also questioning whether the president had the right to bypass Congress. President Obama defended the prisoner swap today while on his European trip.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The United States has always had a pretty sacred rule, and that is we don't leave our men or women in uniform behind. And that dates back to the earliest days of our revolution. We have consulted with Congress for quite some time about the possibility that we might need to execute a prisoner exchange in order to recover Sergeant Bergdahl. We saw an opportunity. We were concerned about Sergeant Bergdahl's health. We had the cooperation of the Qataris to execute an exchange and we seized that opportunity. And the process was truncated because we wanted to make sure that we did not miss that window.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: Let's bring in Representative Peter King of New York. He's a key member of the House Homeland Security Committee and the Intelligence Committee. He's joining us from Long Island.

So what's your reaction to the president's decision to go ahead, do the swift deal, without formally notifying Congress?

REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: Yes, I sort of have a mixed position on this. First of all, I do not think it was a good deal he made. I tried to find a way at the beginning to support it but I just can't until all the facts that have come out. I do believe, though, and here's where I disagree with Professor Turley (ph) and probably with a number of Republicans, I do believe that a president, as commander in chief, would not have to consult with Congress on this because it directly affected an American soldier. Having said that, he should have consulted Congress and he did not. Whether or not he was bound to legally, he certainly should have. Mike Rogers and Dutch Ruppersberger in the House Intelligence Committee, they've been told many, many secrets, if you will, over the years, top secrets. They've never revealed them. Going back to the killing of bin Laden, I understand they were told about months in advance. So the president, to me, really hurt himself.

And, to me, he's hurt himself throughout this. When he had the parents of Bergdahl at the White House for basically a ceremony knowing the background of this soldier, to somehow give him this type of hero status, what did that do to the mother and -- mothers and fathers of other soldiers who have been killed in Afghanistan, especially those who are out trying to find, you know, find their son. And then to have Susan Rice say that he conducted himself with honor and distinction, it makes you wonder about all of the things the president's saying, including the fact that he thinks Qatar is going to somehow be able to provide security so that these five detainees will not be back on the battlefield.

So, I -- again, technically, I think the president had the right to do what he did, but I think it was wrong.

BLITZER: Well, listen to what the president said when he was asked about the circumstances surrounding Sergeant Bergdahl's disappearance.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: With respect to the circumstances of Sergeant Bergdahl's capture by the Taliban, we obviously have not been integrating Sergeant Bergdahl. He is recovering from five years of captivity with the Taliban. He's having to undergo a whole battery of tests and he is going to have to undergo a significant transition back into life. He has not even met with his family yet, which indicates, I think, the degree to which we take this transition process seriously. Something that we learned from the Vietnam era.

But let me just make a very simple point here, and that is, regardless of the circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he's held in captivity, period, full stop. We don't condition that. And that's what every mom and dad who sees a son or daughter sent over into war theater should expect from not just their commander in chief but the United States of America.


BLITZER: And General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, followed up by saying that Bergdahl is innocent until proven guilty. So, go ahead, congressman, respond to the president.

KING: Yes, I would disagree with the president. Obviously, it is our intention to get every soldier to come back. But in this case, the president had to make a decision, should he sent five of the most hardened terrorists back in effect to Qatar and ultimately to the battlefield in return for, you know, this agreement at this time. And all of the available evidence is - raises the most serious doubts about Sergeant Bergdahl. Now, obviously, he's entitled to his day in court, or his day in the court-martial, or Article 15, whatever he goes through. The fact is, on the available evidence that we have for the president to decide that these five, hardest of the hard core, should be put, in effect, released, will ultimately go into the battlefield in return for Sergeant Bergdahl at this stage, I think it was just wrong. He should have held out for, again, if there had to be a deal at the end, fine. But this was a judgment call here. It was not an absolute.

And the president talked about other wars. That's when wars are over. The president somehow declared that he thinks this war is going to be over in one year or two years. But the fact is, the war will not be over. And also, at the end of Vietnam, there wasn't an ending. In World War II, there was an ending. The end of the Korean War, there was an armistice and the prisoners were exchanged. This is not the situation here. This war is still going on. And if the decision was going to be made to do this deal, considering all of the questions about Sergeant Bergdahl, I think it was wrong to do.

BLITZER: All right, Congressman, I want you to stay with us. We'll take a quick break. We have more to discuss. More comments from the president, more of your reaction, right after this.


BLITZER: Back with Congressman Peter King of New York. He's a key member of the House Homeland Security and Intelligence Committees.

Congressman, the president was very firm in talking about the potential threat posed by these five released detainees. Listen to what he said today.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In terms of potential threats, the release of the Taliban, who were being held in Guantanamo, was conditioned on the Qataris keeping eyes on them and creating a structure in which we could monitor their activities. We will be keeping eyes on them. Is there the possibility of some of them trying to return to activities that are detrimental to us? Absolutely. That's been true of all the prisoners that were released from Guantanamo. There's a certain recidivism rate that takes place. I wouldn't be doing it if I thought that it was contrary to American national security. And we have confidence that we will be in a position to go after them if, in fact, they are engaging in activities that threaten our defenses.


BLITZER: You have that same confidence that the U.S. would be in a position to go after them if they once leave Qatar, go back to the battlefield and engage in activities against America?

KING: No. I hate to say this, but the president seems awful casual there about hardened killers. The fact that - I don't know how he's so certain that we can watch them in Qatar, that we're going to have this type of supervision over them. First of all, at best, Qatar or Qatar, depending on what they're calling themselves, they are at best 50/50. They are not loyal allies. They go both ways, quite frankly, and these issues. And I would hate to say - hate to think that the security of American lives in Afghanistan is going to be based on trusting that we get security from Qatar regarding these, you know, five terrorists. No, I don't have faith in that at all.

Listen, it's hard enough for the police in our own country to keep somebody under surveillance. Never mind that we're rely on Qatar to keep these five under surveillance in a foreign country. And as far as -- I am looking forward though, on the intelligence committee, to seeing what CIA Director John Brennan and, you know, the director of national intelligence, General Clapper, how they tell us that the U.S. is prepared to monitor so that we can, first of all, know what they're doing and secondly be able to react instantaneously if they take improper action, you know, illegal action or violent action or go back to the battlefield. I just don't see how that can be done logistically. It would be one thing if it was a close ally like Israel that we're relying on or the British or the Australians. But we're relying on Qatar to be in effect guaranteeing American lives is just wrong.

BLITZER: Peter King, thanks so much for joining us.

KING: Wolf, thank you. Really appreciate it.

BLITZER: We're going to get a very different perspective coming up from the Obama administration as it faces lots questions about the release of Bowe Bergdahl. The White House press secretary, Jay Carney, is standing by live. We'll discuss when we come back.